BELFAST WALKING TOUR
For our inaugural blog post, it seemed entirely fitting to kick things off from HINI HQ, our head office, right next door to Belfast International Youth Hostel. To experience the city as a visitor sees it, I was really excited about taking a walking tour of Belfast with one of our amazing volunteers, John.
It was a Sunday in early May and the sunniest day of the year so far. The tour started at 2pm and five backpackers from the Youth Hostel joined me – two from Canada, two from France and one from Germany, capturing the global flavour of our hostel and guests and bringing people and cultures together in a way that is uniquely HI. John asked us what topics about Belfast we were particularly interested in finding out more about and the consensus was that everyone was interested in the city’s history and politics, so this is what John focused on for the tour.
While bus and taxi tours take visitors to well-known sites across the city such as Stormont, City Hall and the peace walls, there is also much to be learned stepping off the tourist trail and exploring the area right on the hostel’s doorstep.
Immediately outside the Youth Hostel, John pointed down the Donegall Road towards West Belfast and explained about the black cab tours that can booked through the Youth Hostel which focus on the west of the city. He also explained about the concept of peace walls and their rationale and mentioned places like Milltown, Cultúrlann and the International Wall as being of possible interest. We were also told that walking tours which focus exclusively Sandy Row (a nearby predominantly Unionist / Loyalist area) are available and to ask at the hostel for details. The mural of Titanic workers immediately opposite the hostel is part of a government initiative to replace old paramilitary style murals with images that reflect concepts of local culture and history in general.
The next stop was Shaftesbury Square, which is, again, very close to the hostel. John gave us some very interesting facts about how the location connects to local history throughout the conflict, but today it also a well-known centre for local nightlife in the area, with plenty of bars and restaurants nearby.
Just up from Shaftesbury Square we passed a “Belfast Bike” terminal. This is a scheme that began in London with Boris Johnson (London’s former Mayor) where bikes can be hired for a few hours to travel round Belfast using your credit / debit card details. They’re so popular and it’s such a sunny day that all the bikes have been hired today!
Immediately behind the bike terminal there is a small park named King William’s Park, which William of Orange passed by on his way to the Boyne in 1690. John explained the Battle of the Boyne to us along with the history of the (Protestant) Orange Order and (Catholic) Ancient Order of Hibernians.
There is also a piece of Community Art in the park which shows the different areas of Belfast cut into slices, perhaps in reference to the Domino’s Pizza outlet behind the wall!
We began walking up University Road, where John pointed this church (Crescent Church) out to us, saying that while in the past it was a Presbyterian church, it is now a non-denominational Christian church and performs many marriages for couples from different Christian traditions in the city. The church has a lovely park behind it filled with trees in blossoms and benches to sit on, and a few nearby establishments where one can avail of a cold beer!
John stated that in his opinion, the answer to this question is a resounding… YES!!
The Northern Ireland Assembly Elections had been held a few days before; some of the posters still on lampposts drew queries from our visitors!
We soon reached Queen’s University Belfast and coincidentally stopped outside the building I had most of my own classes in (15 years ago now… sheesh)
John explained about the history of the Lanyon building, which was built in 1849 and named after Charles Lanyon – the architect who designed it, and pointed out that the missing metal fence had been melted down for the war effort in WWII. In fact, the main gates in front of the Lanyon Building had been melted down as well but a plaque in the middle of them today shows that a “whip around” in 1949 allowed them to be replaced.
We walked through the Lanyon building which contains this impressive stained glass window and a sculpture of Galileo.
This led us to the “Quad”, which looked really well on such a sunny day – just a pity about the guy blocking the view (yours truly…). In June and July this area is often bedecked with marquees following summer graduation ceremonies in the university.
Next stop was Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. A statue of Lord Kelvin can just about be discerned through the gates. John explained to us that although Lord Kelvin (real name William Thomson) is associated primarily with Glasgow, he was actually born in Belfast and made important contributions to the fields of mathematics and engineering. Kelvin is known for establishing the temperature of ‘absolute zero’. Well there’s cold…and then there’s Belfast!
You can see from the photos that it was a beautiful day in Botanic Gardens – indeed, John said that backpackers on the walking tour often spend a great deal of time there and some leave the tour at this point. The gardens really are one of Belfast’s hidden gems. Inside you can find the Ulster Museum, the Palm House, rose gardens, a children’s play park, an icecream van and lots of locals lying on the main lawn, enjoying the sunshine. The Tropical Ravine is currently being renovated in a £3.8m restoration project and will re-open early next year so make sure you come back and check it out!
After exiting the gardens we stopped at this bronze sculpture outside the university’s McClay library named “Eco.” Eco looks like how I felt during exam time as a student, but he was actually created by the Breton artist Marc Didou and represents the reflection of a head refracted in water. A sculpture from the same series can be seen outside the University of Turin in Italy. John also used this stop off point to tell us about the history of the island of Ireland (and Northern Ireland in particular) during the two World Wars.
From the McClay library, we walked down Botanic Avenue. John pointed out that this building, owned by the university, is actually vacant and has a fake door and fake windows - personally speaking, I’ve walked past this building hundreds of times and never realised that these windows and the door were fake! It just goes to show you how much you can miss in a city you live in and see every single day…
There are lots of coffee shops, bars and restaurants on Botanic that provide the perfect opportunity to pick up some refreshments. I noticed in the window of No Alibis (an independent bookshop that specialises in crime fiction and Irish writing) that signed copies of this new book were for sale and I picked a copy up. I’m a big fan of Peter Hollywood – he’s a local writer from Newry.
Suitably refreshed, we continued on down Botanic, noting this sculpture, who is emerging from the wall outside of Madison’s hotel. We need to get one of these for the Belfast Hostel!
We passed by The Empire (an old church that’s now a bar, famed for its stand-up comedy and live music nights) down to a current day church, the Kinghan Presbyterian Church on Botanic, which functions as a worshipping community of deaf and hearing impaired persons. You can see the celestial light outside Kinghan in my photo(!)
John explained that Presbyterians are the largest Protestant denomination in Ulster. He went on to explain how Catholic and Protestant schools differ in their teaching of history, but also explained that these teachings have recently shifted in focus to provide a more balanced view.
We also passed by a vintage clothing shop that I’d always known as the Rusty Zip, but I noticed that it had changed name. I asked John if he knew anything about this; he told us that it had recently changed hands and was now donating profits to Syrian children as part of a UK wide initiative. I had to be forcibly restrained from making any impulse purchases of drainpipe jeans and vintage leather jackets. Maybe next weekend…
At the bottom of Botanic, we were basically back where we started, having completed a mile and a half circuit. We passed by another Belfast Bike stand – there were still some for hire at this one!
Here we passed by Donegall Pass police station, which is now closed.
Outside the police station there was a barrier for blocking off the road in case of rioting. John told us that it had not been deployed in many years. The modern ones (mainly located in the west of the city) are operated by remote control but thankfully Belfast has become a much more open and safe city in recent years and some peace walls are being taken down while others, such as the one in Alexandra Park in the north of the city, has a gate that stays open to improve access to the area and promote local cohesion.
Further up Donegall pass we stopped at a couple of different types of mural – a community garden project mural and also a depiction of William III of England (“William of Orange” / “King Billy”). John explained that some Protestants, particularly in loyalist communities, would feel an affinity with King Billy, whereas many Catholics would feel offended by such images.
After Donegall Pass, we cut through an area known as “The Markets” on the way to the city centre. This area is predominantly Nationalist / Republican. We passed by a plaque marking the spot where an Official IRA man named Joe McCann was killed in 1972. In contrast to the King Billy mural, John explained that while Irish Republicans would feel an affinity with such memorials, most Unionist people would find them offensive.
The last stop for me on the tour was St Malachy’s Catholic Church, also located in the Markets. John informed us that this was the one of the oldest Catholic churches in Belfast, being built in the early 1840s. As the Youth Hostel guests went inside to look around, I thanked John for his time, as the next (and final) stop was City Hall and the city centre shops.
Despite being from Belfast, the tour made me look on the city with fresh eyes and I felt that I’d gained a newfound appreciation for the urban environment right on my doorstep, especially when I’d taken the tour in the company of young people from different parts around the world and in the hands of such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Cracking day for it too!!